The Ben Voirlich
By John Amos
This article was originally published in the December 2000 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.
The reference to the Ben Voirlich in which Emma Soul and her family migrated to Australia in 1880 (Sole Co-ordinator’s Report, Soul Search, March 2000) was of interest to me as my grandfather sailed as a member of her crew a few years later.
The Ben Voirlich and her sister ship the Ben Cruachan were built as emigrant ships by Barclay Curle in 1873 for Watson Brothers of Glasgow. Until 1885 they sailed between London and Melbourne. They were fast vessels, the Ben Voirlich on her second voyage making one of the fastest ever sailings from Plymouth to Melbourne in 64 days.
Sailing ships were not replaced by steamers on voyages to Australia and New Zealand until the 1880s, when the development of the more efficient engines made steamers economic on the long stages without coaling facilities. Normally sailing ships sailed non-stop from Plymouth to Melbourne, a voyage of three months or more. The route taken was almost due south through the Atlantic until well south of the Cape of Good Hope. They would then sail east around latitude 46o until south of their destination. There would be occasional sightings of islands, which served as useful navigational checks.
With up to 300 emigrants on board a ship about the size of the Cutty Sark conditions must have been interesting, possibly cosy, even though a chaperone was normally provided to care for the single young ladies.
The master of the Ben Voirlich from 1879 to 1884 was Charles Douglas. His log for 1883 records the antics of two first class passengers, Mr and “Mrs” Russell, who sought to seduce the crew, with some success. Eventually Mrs Russell and the steward had to be locked up (in separate quarters). On arrival at Geelong, the steward was charged with disobeying orders. Douglas failed to attend the court sending word that he was moving the ship. However the defence brought evidence that he was attending the races, and the steward was found not guilty. The aggrieved Douglas sums up his feelings “Justice is justice, but there is no justice like justice’s justice”! It turned out that Mr and Mrs Russell weren’t married, and the steward was able to make an honest woman of Mrs Russell. The log doesn’t record whether they lived happily ever afterwards.
The Ben Voirlich eventually became the Italian vessel the Cognati and survived until 1907. The enclosed picture of the Cognati is from a painting in the museum at Camogli near Genoa,
Captain Douglas was born in Enniskillen in 1836. After he retired he acquired the Muriel, a small sailing smack, registered at Colchester. Both Douglas and the Muriel are next recorded in Australia. Did he sail her there? From his ships’ logs Captain Douglas is an idiosyncratic person with an obsessive dislike of the Board of Trade and their regulations. Unusually for a ship’s master of his time there is a feeling of real compassion in the log when the death of crewmembers is recorded. Charles Douglas is a fascinating character and I would be delighted to hear from anyone whose ancestors sailed with him or on the Ben Voirlich.
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